You Can Learn a Lot From a Grocery Store

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is visit local grocery stores. These spaces are often the best way to learn about the similarities and differences of local culture.

In France, the wine selection goes on for days and days. Sometimes there is even a wine cellar. The wine is all dirt cheap (think $2-3 a bottle for something that would easily cost $25-30 in the States), and very good.

The French also love smoked salmon, apparently, because never in my life have I seen such a selection of that particular item.

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I wasn’t kidding about the smoked salmon.

In Italy, what’s not on the shelves is interesting: peanut butter. While you may find familiar labels (Nivea, Dove, Nestle) on the shelves, peanut butter of any brand has not infiltrated Italian culture.

In Iceland, I found a variety of dried fish, candy that tasted like menthol, and skeins of wool right there near the cash registers.

In Japan, a four-pack of peaches cost $20. A lot of fruit has to be imported, so the prices reflect that.

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I wasn’t kidding about the menthol candy, either.

One thing I have noticed in particular is that in European countries, eggs are found on a non-refrigerated shelf. I was happy to have the opportunity to explore why when invited to write an article about it for moneysmartfamily.com. The short version as to why some cultures refrigerate their eggs and some do not lies in how we approach managing salmonella. The chickens, and the eggs, are essentially the same.

I hope you enjoy reading about the cultural differences of egg storage. Please share the differences you have found with grocery store food when traveling!

Borrowing Money for School: An Exercise in Confusion and Mild Panic

I am lucky. I grew up knowing that my parents would pay for my college education. This was not easy for them. I have two sisters, and my parents were committed to sending each of us to college. They worked, and saved, and budgeted, and at times fought over saving and budgeting.

When I wanted to transfer from my affordable and respectable state institution to a fancy and expensive private school, my dad sat me down and explained the reality of that choice. I didn’t fully understand the impact of taking on a lot of student loan debt at that time, but I did understand that student loan debt, or any kind of debt, was Serious Business.

I paid attention. I made it through my bachelor’s degree with zero debt. I worked part time during the school year, and full time during the summers. Just as much as the fact of my going to college was always a given, so was the fact that if I wanted to attend graduate school, I would have to find a way to pay for it myself.

So, I did. I worked full time for a number of years, and when I found a program that I liked, at a school that was close enough to get to in the evenings after work, I applied.

I paid for it in part by taking advantage of my employer’s 50% tuition reimbursement deal, which they honored for a few terms until they realized that someone was actually using that benefit and cut off the funds. I also had some savings, and a small inheritance, and so paid cash for the rest. By spreading the classes out, one per term (except for the summers, when I inexplicably doubled up in a concentrated amount of time; I do not recommend this), I earned my master’s degree without a penny of debt.

Then, I went back to school for my doctorate. I did not need to borrow money to cover living expenses, but I did borrow to cover tuition. Having never borrowed money for school before, I took it upon myself to go to the financial aid office in person to make sure that everything was squared away.

I had already filled out the FAFSA forms. I had taken the FAFSA quiz that has questions along the lines of, “you know you have to pay this back, right?” The government offered me the full amount of unsubsidized loans: $12,500/year.

The catch was that I didn’t need $12,500 a year. Tuition was in the neighborhood of $4-6,000 per year, because 1) it was an affordable state school, and 2) I was only attending part-time.

I couldn’t figure out how to decline any part of the excess money, so I walked into the financial aid office of my school and introduced myself. I said I was new to that school, and to the student loan process. I asked if someone could please tell me how to borrow the money that I do need, and decline the money that I don’t.

Seems straightforward, right?

The lady behind the desk handed me a form and said to fill it out. There was a box at the bottom for me to handwrite my explanation as to what money I wanted to decline. This seemed rather unofficial to me, but after all, these are the people who should know, right?

I filled out the form. I again explained my intention. I was told that I had done what I needed to do, and to have a nice day.

Huh, I thought. That was easy enough.

About a month later, I received a statement from the U.S. Department of Education. The statement showed that I had borrowed the full amount offered, and that interest was accruing.

I went back to the financial aid office. I again explained my situation. I was again told that I had followed the procedure to only borrow X dollars and decline the rest.

“Except, the Federal Government is charging me interest,” I explained. The financial aid staff was confused. I had followed the procedure and they had logged my visit in the computer. If it said in the computer that I had done what I was supposed to do, then we were all set.

“Except, the Federal Government is charging me interest,” I said again.

I refused to leave the office until we got this figured out. It was an uncomfortable situation. The financial aid staff kept insisting my account was set up properly. I kept showing them the loan statement showing that it wasn’t.

Eventually, defeated, I left the office, confused, but unable to get anywhere.

Then, I received an email saying that if I did not settle my account within three business days, I would be dropped from my schedule.

Excuse me? What’s this now? Had I not followed the procedure? Did I not go, in person, twice, to speak to financial aid professionals to ensure that my account was set up properly?

Did I not fill out the form that I was told twice was all I needed to do? Did the financial aid staff not check the computer and see that my account was set up properly? And as the Federal Government was charging me interest, clearly something was paid to someone. If I didn’t have the money, and the University didn’t have the money, who had the money?  What on earth was going on?

I went back to the financial aid office. Again, I had to insist that my account was not, in fact, set up properly, only now I had the added component of the threat of being dropped from my classes, and I had no idea why.

I insisted on sitting down with a supervisor in the financial aid office. She checked the computer. She said what everyone else kept saying: my account showed that I had set everything up and so clearly had not borrowed the extra money. I showed her the loan statement from the federal government showing that the government had loaned me the full amount.

I showed her the email saying I was about to be dropped from my classes and now had only had two business days to work out what I had thought I had worked out weeks ago by going, in person, twice, to the financial aid office, explaining my situation, and asking for help.

Here’s where I fast forward to the conclusion: It turns out that when the Federal Government issues student loan checks, it sends the checks to the school. Then, students apparently, as if by magic or telepathy, have to know to show up at the Bursar’s office at a particular time of year to claim the check.

To this day, I have no idea how students learn they have to do this. I never got a letter or an email or a phone call. I went to the financial aid office in person more than once, each time explaining that I had no idea how the process works and asking for help.

Yet, somehow I was magically supposed to know I had to stand in a line at a particular office at a particular time, accept a live check and either sign for it and keep the money or sign it back over to the university, at which time they credit my account with enough of the funds to settle my bill, and return the rest to Uncle Sam.

This process left me speechless. No wonder so many so students rack up debt like someone is handing them free money. Because, someone is handing them free money.

It’s a good thing I was a woman of a certain age, who was raised to be extremely conservative with debt. There was no way I was going to borrow one penny more than I absolutely needed to cover my tuition. But would the situation have been different were I an 18-year-old freshman who didn’t grow up with my dad teaching me the importance of saving early and often?

I was acutely aware of the impact of debt and compounding interest, but I know that not everyone is. I can see the dollar signs adding up as one uninformed college student after another is handed a five-figure check with their name on it, knowing they don’t have to figure out how to pay it back for years.

To this day, I do not understand how students are supposed to figure out this process. Apparently, they do. That line at the bursar’s office was long. Does every student figure this out the same way that I did, through confusion and mild panic?

There were a lot of people involved in the financial aid office (and, not incidentally, the Dean’s office, when I called to ask why I was about to be dropped from my classes) who treated me as though I was doing something wrong. The woman in the Dean’s office was flat-out rude, acting as though my situation was entirely of my own delinquency for not paying my bills. Even when I explained the situation, still she was condescending and rude, as if I was lying about my circumstances.

If walking into the financial aid office and asking point blank for help understanding the process is not enough for a student to become educated, what exactly are students supposed to do? Circumstances like these make me angry at the growing student debt crisis in our country, because it’s clear that there is information that needs to be shared, yet the people in the best positions to share it are not doing so.

 

 

 

 

Women and Student Loan Debt

A new article I wrote went live today. Please check it out and leave a comment on the site!

This was an interesting piece to write. When I was first assigned the topic, I had no idea how I would get 2,000 words out of it. Then, I started researching, asking around, and paying attention.

It turns out that student loan debt is actually a women’s issue. I had no idea. Did you?

The Key to Maintaining A Healthy Weight in Your 40s

I am a reasonably slim, physically fit woman. I have always been active, and enjoy exercise. Yet, despite these truths, I started gradually putting on a little more weight, and a little more, and a little more after that, until one day I was 40 years old and had no idea how I suddenly needed all new pants.

I went hiking last year with a dear friend and after several hours of a fairly grueling ascent, we took a selfie. I hated – and I mean hated – how I looked in that picture. I was embarrassed by that picture. My friend posted that picture to Facebook and I almost asked her to take it down. Then I thought, no. Hiding from this is not the answer. Instead, I need to figure out what I’m going to do about it, because no way am I buying all new pants, again.

Marie before
My “Before” picture

How It Happened

In a nutshell: I turned 40. When women get to middle age, our metabolism decreases by about 5% for every ten years past the age of 40.[1]By changing nothing other than simply observing the passage of time, I will continue to gain weight slowly yet steadily. It’s a cruel game, but one that I am determined to win.

What I Did About It

I resolved to make some changes in my life. I started by moving more. I found some buddies at work who also want to move more, and we went for a brisk half hour walk every day at lunchtime. Eventually, I found some coworkers who wanted to hit the gym pretty hard during our lunch breaks, so I joined them. Together, we have been incorporating running and strength training – get this – into my workday. That was a tough change at first. I had to embrace packing (and unpacking) a gym bag each and every day. I needed a second pair of sneakers so I could keep a pair in my bag at all times. I got used to taking a sometimes cold shower on the fly after a workout and going back to my desk just a bit askew. I accepted that any good hair day I had would only last for the morning, because after lunch I would have workout hair.

And you know what? It was worth it.

Within six months I noticed I not only had more energy, but my pants were fitting looser. I was able to lift heavier weights. I started to like what I saw when I looked in the mirror more and more.

Don’t Count Calories

As much as I know that exercise helped not only my waistline but also my psyche, changing my eating habits helped much more. I met with a nutritionist, and that was helpful, mostly because she showed me that as long as I am eating nutritionally dense foods, I can eat much more than I thought I could and stay within a healthy calorie range. But the real key was when I met with my doctor and asked for her recommendation for a healthy weight. She paused for a minute, and then said thoughtfully: “Women in our 40s and 50s just don’t need as many calories.”

It was like a light went off. She’s right. That’s the key. It really is that simple.

I have to work on not eating when I’m not hungry. I don’t need to munch on something every time I sit down with a book. I don’t need to pre-emptively eat now just in case I get hungry later and don’t have easy access to food. I started stashing healthy, protein-heavy snacks in easy to grab places. I have a large tub of unsalted mixed nuts in my desk at work. I bought 100 calorie Kind bars so I can throw one in my bag for when I’m out and about. I made it easy for myself to always have something that tastes good and is nutrient-rich around me at all times, so that I make better choices.

This way, when I do make less than healthy choices, I’m not derailing myself. I still eat ice cream, but I buy mochi, which are individual sized bites of ice cream wrapped in rice dough. They’re delightful and portion controlled. I sometimes eat more fruit snacks than I should but I make sure to buy them in individual sized packages so I don’t snarf an entire bag in one sitting. Sure, buying things that are pre-packaged that way is a bit less economical than portioning them out myself, but not having to buy all new pants – again – is well worth the added bit of expense of these foods. I’m more likely to stick with the healthy snacks when I make it as easy on myself as possible to access them.

Throw Away the Scale

This step is key. I was making myself crazy by stepping on my bathroom scale every day, every day. Then the battery died, and I made a conscious decision not to replace it. I give the side eye to the scale at the gym and keep on walking. I’ll let my doctor weigh me once a year, but other than that, the only number I’ll pay attention to is the one on the smaller size pants that I’m buying.

I also do not count calories, ever. Do I have a better idea of what constitutes 100 calories? Yes. Am I getting more comfortable with just how much food I need at any given meal to be satisfied and healthy? Yes, though that’s still a process. When counting calories, I would try to “win” by eating as few of my allotted calories a day. That was a mistake. I was constantly hungry, and then angry, and then hangry, and then had no energy, and this doesn’t work! Do not do this to yourself! I am now in the habit of knowing that I will be happier if I eat those multi-grain toaster waffles with almond butter in the morning than if I have a doughnut for breakfast. I’m giving up nothing.

What’s Next

I’m going to continue to plan meals, including making extra and freezing them. This way, when I’m hungry and don’t have the time or energy to cook, I simply pull a premade meal out of the freezer, defrost, and enjoy. I’m going to continue to exercise regularly and find new ways to fit exercise into my daily routine, because I enjoy it, not because I feel that I should. I’m going to continue not caring about the number on the scale, because the real point of life is to find the balance between enjoying food without overindulging in food (which really isn’t so enjoyable anyway).

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Me today.

I plan to eat all the things, but to remember that I simply don’t need as many calories, and let that be my guide. So far, it’s working out pretty well.

[1]https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/fighting-40s-flab#1

 

The Day I Stopped Using My Fitbit

I recently started making a conscious choice to change my habits when it comes to technology. I have been staring at my phone too long, losing hours to mindlessly web surfing. I jumped at every message that came in, and even started my day using my phone as my alarm clock, which inevitably led to more staring at the screen as I used that as an excuse not to face the day. The final straw was when I was sitting in the dentist’s chair and saw a poster on the wall advertising the latest electronic toothbrush. The thing comes with an app that you can use for – who cares what you can use it for. I was almost angry when looking at that poster. The last thing I want is to need my phone to use my toothbrush. What on earth have we become?

This inspired me to start thinking about all of the ways I have been using my phone out of habit. I even brought it to the office gym every day when I would work out at lunchtime. Why on earth do I need my phone at the gym? I don’t. Sometimes when I run on the treadmill, I don’t mind having tunes to keep me occupied, but normally I work out with other people. I don’t need the phone to do the workout. Someone else is usually willing to stream music while we exercise, and take a group picture after we’re done. And if we miss out on those things, oh well. Small price to pay for being untethered.

Plus, I found that when I had my phone with me, I would linger before showering to check email, scan Facebook, and generally waste time. It was getting ridiculous.

So, one day, I left my FitBit at home by accident. I got halfway to my car, thought about going back for it, and then thought, nope.

It was that simple. That was two weeks ago and I haven’t touched it since. I haven’t charged it. I haven’t synced it. I haven’t missed it.

When I first got the Fitbit, I enjoyed using it to connect to others. Then I enjoyed using it to compete with others. And then I enjoyed using it to compete with myself.

However, after not too long at all, I realized that I was starting to feel obligated to stare at my phone to sync my steps at least once a day, if not more. And when I started working out with the group at lunchtime, those strength workouts didn’t add up to nearly as many steps even though I was getting better exercise. I found that thanks to those daily workouts, I was getting more than enough fitness and really didn’t need to overwhelm myself with trying to get in more steps.

I certainly wasn’t going to feel obligated to then walk an arbitrary number of additional steps just to meet … what? Whose goal, exactly? Daily step goals are great to get you out of a rut. They’re interesting to see how far you go on a day when you’re on your feet a lot. But walking a minimum number of steps is merely one way to work exercise into your day. It’s certainly not the only way.

While the FitBit can be a gateway to developing newer, better fitness habits, I found that it was also a gateway to developing an unhealthy phone addiction.

To cap it all off, today I received an email from Fitbit alerting users to a recent data breach. Awesome. I knew while using it that I was wearing a GPS tracking device. I was aware of how much information I was choosing to upload to the magic cloud in the sky. But all the same, with so much of our lives happening digitally now, it is time for companies like this to step up their security game, and protect their users. Basic respect for privacy, within the limits of what we choose to share, is not an unreasonable expectation.

All signs are pointing to no more Fitbit. And I am very much okay with that.